Chapter 7

 Scott Westerfeld

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Chapter 7
I didn't really sleep that night. I never do.
Sure, I take my clothes off, get into bed, and close my eyes. But the whole unconsciousness thing doesn't quite happen. My mind keeps humming, like in those hours when you're coming down with something - not quite sick yet, but a bit light-headed, a fever threatening, illness buzzing at the edge of your awareness like a mosquito in the dark.
The Shrink says it's the sound of my immune system fighting the parasite. There's a war in my body every minute, a thousand T-and B-cells battering the horned head of the beast, prying at its hooks along my muscles and spine, finding and destroying its spores hidden inside transmuted red blood cells. On top of which there's the parasite fighting back, reprogramming my own tissues to feed it, tangling up my immune defenses with false alarms and bogus enemies.
This guerrilla war is always going on, but only when I'm lying in silence can I actually hear it.
You'd think this constant battle would tear me apart, or leave me exhausted come daylight, but the parasite is too well made for that. It doesn't want me dead. I'm a carrier, after all - I have to stay alive to ensure its spread. Like every parasite, the thing inside me has evolved to find a precarious balance called optimum virulence. It takes as much as it can get away with, sucking out the nutrients it needs to create more offspring. But no parasite wants to starve the host too quickly, not while it's getting a free ride. So, as long as it gets fed, it backs off. I may eat like a four-hundred-pound guy, but I never get fat. The parasite uses the nutrients to churn out its spores in my blood and saliva and semen, with enough left over to give me predatory strength and hyped-up senses.
Optimum virulence is why most deaths from parasites are long and lingering - in the case of a carrier like me, the time it takes to die happens to be longer than a normal human life span. That's the way the older peep hunters talk about it: not so much immortality as a centuries-long downward spiral. Maybe that's why they use the word undead.
So I lie awake every night, listening to the gnawing, calorie-burning struggle inside me, and getting up for the occasional midnight snack.
That particular long night, I found myself thinking about Lace, remembering her smell, along with another flood of details I hadn't even known I'd spotted. Her right hand sometimes made a fist when she talked, her eyebrows moved a lot beneath their concealing fringe, and - unlike girls back in Texas - her voice didn't rise in pitch at the end of a sentence, unless it really was a question, and sometimes not even then.
We'd agreed to meet in my favorite diner at noon the next day, after her morning class. Neither of us wanted to discuss things in front of her friends, and something about the aftertaste of pepperoni doesn't go with talk of gristle on the wall.
Normally, I don't like to torture myself, hanging around with cute girls my age, but this was job-related, after all. Besides, maybe a little bit of torture is okay. I didn't want to wind up like the Shrink, after all, collecting old dolls or something even weirder.
And I figured it would be nice to hang out with someone from outside the Night Watch once in a while, someone who thought I was a normal guy.
So I stayed awake all night, thinking of lies to tell her.
I got up early and reported to the Night Watch first.
The Watch's offices are pretty much like any other city government building, except older, danker, and even deeper underground. There are the usual metal detectors, petty bureaucrats behind glass, and ancient wooden file drawers stuffed with four centuries' worth of paperwork. Except for the odd fanatic like Dr. Rat, no one looks remotely happy to be at work there, or even slightly motivated.
It's a wonder the whole city isn't infected.
I went to Records first. In terms of square footage, Records is the biggest department of the Watch. They've got back doors into regular city data, and also their own paper trails going back to the days when Manhattan was called New Amsterdam. Records can find out who owns what anywhere in the city, who owned it before that, and before that ... back to the Dutch farmers who stole it from the Manhattan Indians.
And they're not just into real estate - Records has a database of every suspicious death or disappearance since 1648 and can produce a clipping of pretty much every newspaper story involving infectious diseases, lunatic attackers, or rat population explosions published since the printing press reached the New World.
Records has two mottos. One is:
The Secrets of the City Are Ours
The other:
Bring your own. You'll need them. You see, like every other department in the city, Records runs on Almighty Forms. There are forms that tell the Night Mayor's office what we hunters are doing - starting an investigation, ending one, or reaching various points along the way. There are forms that make things happen, from installing rat traps to getting lab work done. There are forms with which to requisition peep-hunting equipment, from tiger cages to Tasers. (The form for commandeering a genuine NYC garbage truck may be thirty-four pages long, but one day I will think of some reason to fill it out, I swear to you.) There are even forms that activate other forms or switch them off, that cause other forms to mutate, thus bringing newly formed forms into the world. Put together, all these forms are the vast spiral of information that defines us, guides our growth, and makes sure our future looks like our past - they are the DNA of the Night Watch.
Fortunately, what I wanted that morning wasn't quite DNA-complicated. First, I requisitioned some standard equipment, the sort of peep-hunting toys that you can pull off the rack. Then I asked for some information about Lace's building: who owned it, who had originally rented all the seventh-floor apartments, and if anything noticeably weird had ever happened there. Getting answers to these simple questions wasn't easy, of course. Nothing ever is, down in the bowels of a bureaucracy. But after only three hours, my paperwork passed muster with the ancient form-dragon behind the bulletproof glass, was rolled into a pneumatic-tube missile, and was launched on its journey into the Underworld with a swish.
They'd call me when it came back, so I headed off to meet Lace at my favorite diner. On the way, I realized that this was my first date in six months - even if it was only a "date" in the lame sense of being an arrangement to meet someone. Still, the concept made me nervous, all my underused muscles of dating anxiety springing into action. I started checking out my reflection in shop windows and wondering if Lace would like the Kill Fee T-shirt I was wearing. Why hadn't I put on something less threadbare? And what was with my hair these days? Apparently, Dr. Rat, the Shrink, and my other Night Watch pals didn't feel compelled to tell me it was sticking out at the sides.
After two minutes in front of a bank window, trying to stick it behind my ears, I despaired of fixing it. Then I despaired of my life in general.
What was the point of a good haircut when nothing could come of it anyway?
Lace sat down across from me, wearing the same leather jacket as the night before, this time over a wool dress. Under a beret that was the same dark brown as her eyes, her hair still smelled like jasmine-scented shampoo. She looked like she'd had about as much sleep as I had.
Seeing Lace in the daylight, both of us sober, I realized for the first time that she might be a few years older than me. Her leather jacket was brown - with buttons, not black and zippered like mine - and the rest of her outfit looked like something you would wear to an office job. My Kill Fee T-shirt felt suddenly dorky, and I hunched my shoulders together so my jacket would fall across the screaming demon on my chest.
"What up?" she said, feeling my scrutiny, and I dropped my eyes back to the table.
"Uh, nothing. How was your class?" I asked, spattering some more Tabasco over my scrambled eggs and bacon. Before she'd arrived, I'd already consumed a pepper steak to calm my nerves.
"All right, I guess. Some guest lecturer yakking about ethics."
"Journalistic ethics."
"Oh." I stirred my black coffee for no particular reason. "Journalists have ethics?"
Lace cast her eyes around for a waiter or waitress, one finger pointing at my coffee. She nodded as the connection was made, then turned back to me. "They're supposed to. You know, don't reveal your sources. Don't destroy people's lives just to get a story. Don't pay people for interviews."
"You're studying journalism?"
"Journalism and the law, actually."
I nodded, wondering if that was an undergraduate major. Somehow, it didn't sound like one. I revised Lace's age up to the lower to mid-twenties and felt myself relax a little. Suddenly, this was even less a date than it had been a moment before.
"Cool," I said.
She looked at me like I might be retarded.
I tried to smile back at her, realizing that my small-talk muscles were incredibly rusty, the result of socializing only with people in a secret organization who pretty much only socialized with one another. Of course, if I could just steer the conversation to rinderpest infection rates in Africa, I knew I'd blow her away.
Rebecky - at sixty-seven and three hundred pounds, my favorite waitress in the world to flirt with - appeared and handed Lace a cup of coffee and a menu.
"How're you doing there, Cal?" she asked.
"Just fine, thanks."
"You sure? You haven't been eating much lately." She gave me a sly wink.
"On a diet," I said, patting my stomach.
Her standard response: "Wish that diet worked on me."
Rebecky chuckled as she walked away. She's amazed by my appetite, but her repertoire of where-does-Cal-put-it-all jokes had shrunk to the bare minimum over the last months. As a guy with something to hide, there's one thing I've learned: People only worry about the uncanny for about a week; that's the end of their attention span. After that, suspicions turn into shtick.
Lace looked up from her menu. "Speaking of funny diets, Cal, what the hell happened in my building last winter?"
I leaned back and sipped coffee. Evidently, Lace wasn't up for small talk either. "You in a hurry or something?"
"My lease is up in two months, dude. And last night you promised you wouldn't jerk me around."
"I'm not jerking you around. You should try the pepper steak."
"Oh," I said, my parasite rumbling at the concept.
Lace flagged down Rebecky and ordered potato salad, while I crammed some bacon into my mouth. Potato salad is an Atkins nightmare, and more important, the parasite hates it. Peeps prefer protein, red in tooth and claw.
"So tell me what you know," she said.
"Okay." I cleared my throat. "First of all, I'm not really Morgan's cousin."
I frowned. This revelation hadn't provided the same oomph that it had on my mental flowchart of the conversation. "But I am looking for her."
"Again: duh, dude. So you're like a private detective or something? Or stalker ex-boyfriend?"
"No. I work for the city."
"Cal, you are so not a cop."
I wasn't quite sure how she'd come to this assessment, but I couldn't argue. "No, I'm not. I work for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Sexually Transmitted Disease Control."
"Sexually transmitted?" She raised an eyebrow. "Wait. Are you sure you're not a stalker?"
I reached for my wallet and flopped it open, revealing one of the items I'd picked up from the Night Watch that morning. We've got a big machine that spits out laminated ID cards and badges, credentials for dozens of city agencies, both real and imaginary. This silver-plated badge was very impressive, with the words Health Field Officer curving along the bottom. In the ID case next to it, my photo stared grimly out at her.
She stared at it for a moment, then said, "You know you're wearing the same shirt today as in that picture?"
I froze for a second, realizing that, yep, I hadn't changed since that morning. In a brilliant save, I glanced down at my Kill Fee T-shirt and said, "What? You don't like it?"
"Not particularly. So what's that job all about? Do you, like, hunt people down and arrest them for spreading the clap?"
I cleared my throat, pushing my empty plate away. "Okay, here's how it works. About a year ago, I was given a disease. Um, let me put that another way - I was assigned a specific carrier of a certain disease. I tracked down all his sexual partners and encouraged them to get tested, then I tracked down their sexual partners, and so on." I shrugged. "I just keep going where the chain of infection leads me, informing people along the way. Sometimes I don't get enough specific information about someone, so I have to poke around a little, like I was last night. For one thing, I don't even know Morgan's last name." I raised my eyebrows hopefully.
Lace shrugged. "Me neither. So let me get this straight: You tell people they've got STDs? That's your job, dude?"
"No, their doctors do that. All I'm allowed to do is tell them they're at risk. Then I try to get them to cooperate and give me a list of people they've slept with. Someone's got to do it."
"I guess. Wow, though."
"So far I've spent a whole year tracking down the offspring - or rather, the infections from that one carrier." I smiled at my cover story's cleverness. Nifty how I worked the truth in there, huh?
"Wow," Lace repeated softly, her eyes still wide.
Now that I thought about it, the job I'd chosen for myself did sound pretty cool. A little bit of undercover work, some social consciousness, an air of illicit mystery and human tragedy. One of those careers where you'd have to face life's harsh realities and be a good listener. By now, she had to figure I was older than nineteen - more like her age, and probably wise beyond my years.
Her potato salad arrived, and after a fortifying bite of carbs, she said, "So what's your disease?"
"My disease? I didn't say I had a disease."
"The one you're tracking, dude."
"Oh. Right. I'm not at liberty to say. Confidentiality. We have ethics too."
"Sure you do." Her eyes narrowed. "And that's why you didn't want to talk in front of my friends last night?"
I nodded. My cover story was sliding into place perfectly.
She put down her fork. "But it's one of those sexually transmitted diseases that makes people paint stuff on the walls in blood?"
I swallowed, wondering if perhaps my cover story might have a few loose ends.
"Well, some STDs can cause dementia," I said. "Late-stage syphilis, for example, makes you go crazy. It eats your brain. Not that syphilis is what we're talking about here, necessarily."
"Wait a second, Cal. You think all the people on the seventh floor of my building were shagging one another? And going all demented from it?" She made a face at her potato salad. "Do you guys get a lot of that kind of thing?"
"Um, it happens. Some STDs can cause ... promiscuity. Sort of." I felt my cover story entering the late stages of its life span and suppressed an urge to mention rabies (which was a little too close to the truth, what with the frothing and the biting). "Right now, I can't be sure what happened up there. But my job is to find out where all those people went, especially if they're infected."
"And why the landlord is covering it up."
"Yeah, because this is all about your rent."
She raised her hands. "Hey, I didn't know you were all into saving the world, okay? I just thought you were a stalker ex-boyfriend or a weird psycho cousin or something. But I'm glad you're the good guys, and I want to help. It's not just my rent situation, you know. I have to live with that thing on the wall."
I put down my coffee cup with authoritative force. "Okay. I'm glad you're helping. I thank you, and your city thanks you."
In fact, I was just glad the cover story had made it through the worst of Lace's suspicions. I'd never really worked undercover before; lies aren't my thing. She frowned, eating a few more bites of potato salad, and I wondered if Lace's help was worth involving her. So far, she'd been a little too smart for comfort. But smart wasn't all bad. It wouldn't hurt to have a pair of sharp eyes on the seventh floor.
And frankly, I was enjoying her company, especially the way she didn't hide her thoughts and opinions. That wasn't a luxury I could indulge in myself, of course, but it was good to hear Lace voicing every suspicion that went through her head. Saved me from being paranoid about what she was thinking.
On top of which, I was feeling very in control, hanging out with a desirable woman without having a sexual fantasy every few seconds. Maybe every few minutes or so, but still, you have to crawl before you can walk.
"Dude, why are you scratching your wrist like that?"
"I am? Oh, crap."
"What the hell, Cal? It's all red."
"Um, it's just..." I ransacked my internal database of skin parasites, then announced,
"Pigeon mites!" "Pigeon whats?"
"You know. When pigeons sit on your window and shake their feathers? Sometimes these little mites fall off and nest in your pillows. They bite your skin and cause..." I waved my oft-pinged wrist.
"Eww. One more reason not to like pigeons." She glared out the window at a few of them scavenging on the sidewalk. "So what do we do now?"
"How about this? You take me back to your building and show me which apartment used to be Morgan's."
"And then what?"
"Leave that to me."
As we passed the doorman I made sure to catch his eye and smile. If I came in with Lace a few more times, maybe the staff would start to recognize me.
On the seventh floor, she led me to the far end of the hall, gesturing at a door marked 704. There were just four apartments on this floor, all the one-bedrooms you could squeeze into the sliver-thin building.
"That's where she lived, according to the two guys upstairs. Loud and freaky in bed, they tell me."
I coughed into a fist, again damning my fugitive memories. "You know who lives here now?"
"Guy called Max. He works days."
I knocked hard. No answer.
Lace sighed. "I told you he wouldn't be home."
"Glad to hear it." I pulled out another of the items requisitioned that morning and knelt by the door: The lock was a standard piece-of-crap deadbolt, five tumblers. Into its keyhole I sprayed some graphite, which is the same gray stuff that gets on your fingers if you fiddle with the end of a pencil, and does the same thing to locks that Bahamalama-Dingdongs do to repressed memories - lubricates them. Two of the tumblers rolled over as my pick slid in. Easy-peasy.
"Dude," Lace whispered, "shouldn't you get a warrant or something?"
I was ready for this one. "Doesn't matter. You only need a warrant if you want the evidence to stand up in court. But I'm not taking anyone to court." Another tumbler rolled over. "This isn't a criminal investigation."
"But you can't just break into people's apartments!"
"I'm not breaking. Just looking."
"Look, Lace, maybe this isn't strictly legal. But if people in my job didn't cut a few corners every now and then, everyone in this city would be infected, okay?"
She paused for a moment, but the ring of truth had filled my words. I've seen simulations of what would happen if the parasite were to spread unchecked, and believe me, it's not pretty. Zombie Apocalypse, we call it.
Finally, she scowled. "You better not steal anything."
"I won't." The last two tumblers went, and I opened the door. "You can stay out here if you want. Knock hard if Max comes out of that elevator."
"Forget it," she said. "I'm going to make sure you don't do anything weird. Besides, he's had my blender for four months."
She pushed in past me, heading for the kitchen. I sighed, putting my lock-pick away and closing the door behind us.
The apartment was a carbon copy of Lace's, but with better furniture. The shape of the living room refired my recognition pistons. Finally, I had found the place where the parasite had entered me, making me a carrier and changing my life forever.
It was much tidier than Lace's apartment, which might be a problem. After seven months of living there, an obsessive cleaner would have swept away a lot of evidence.
I crossed to the sliding glass doors and shut the curtains to make it darker, trying to ignore the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen.
"You know," I called, "you're the one who's going to have to explain to Max how you got your blender back."
"I'll tell him I astral-projected. Butt-head."
"Him, not you. He had my blender all summer. Margarita season."
"Oh." I shook my head - infection, cannibalism, blender appropriation. The Curse of 704 was alive and well.
I pulled out another little toy I'd picked up that morning - an ultraviolet wand - and flicked it on. The demon's eyes on my Kill Fee shirt began to give off an otherworldly glow. I swept the wand across the same wall that, back in Lace's apartment, had held the words written in gristle.
"Dude! Flashback!" Lace said, crossing the living room. She smiled, and her teeth flickered as white as a radioactive beach at noon.
"Yeah, your teeth are glowing, like at a dance club."
I shrugged. "Don't go to clubs much since I ... got this job."
"No, I guess you wouldn't," she said. "All that sexual transmission just waiting to happen."
"Huh? Hey, I don't have anything against - "
She smiled. "Just kidding, dude. Relax."
"Ah." I cleared my throat.
Nothing glowed on the wall in the ultraviolet. I held the wand closer, casting weird shadows across the stucco mountainscape. No pattern of a hurried paint roller appeared. I cut into a few spots at random with my fingernail, but nothing bright shone through.
The other walls were just as clean.
"So does that thing make blood show up?" she asked.
"Blood and other bodily fluids."
"Bodily fluids? You are so CSI." She said this like it was a cool thing, and I gave her a smile.
"Let's try the bedroom," she said.
"Good idea."
We went through the door, and my dj vu ramped up to another level. This was where I had lost my virginity and become a monster, all in one night.
Like the living room, the bedroom was impeccably clean. Lace sat on the bed while I scanned the walls with UV.
"This goo you're looking for, it isn't still ... active, is it?"
"Active? Oh, you mean infectious." I shook my head. "One thing about parasites - they're great at living inside other organisms, but once they hit the outside world, they're not so tough."
"Oh, pretend you didn't hear that. Anyway, after seven months, you're totally safe from catching it." I cleared my throat. "As am I."
"So, what's with the glow stick?"
"I'm trying to see if the same thing happened here as in your apartment."
"The wall-writing dementia festival, you mean? Does that really happen a lot?"
"Not really."
"Didn't think so. Lived in New York all my life, and I never saw anything like that on the news."
I shot her a look, the word news making me wonder if her journalistic instincts were kicking in. Which would be a bad thing.
"What disease is this again?" she asked.
"Not telling."
I waved the wand at her, and several luminous streaks appeared on the blanket underneath her.
"What's that?"
I grinned. "Bodily fluids."
"Dude!" She leaped to her feet.
"That's nothing compared to the skin mites."
Lace was rubbing her hands together. "Which are what?"
"Microscopic insects that hang out in beds, feeding on dead skin cells."
"I'll be washing out my blender," she said, and left me alone.
I chuckled to myself and turned the wand on the other walls, the floors, inside the closet. Other than Max's blanket and a pair of underwear under the bed, the UV didn't get a rise out of anything. Picking at the stucco didn't help; nothing had been painted over in this apartment.
Max was a lot neater than most single men, I'd say that for the guy. Or maybe Morgan knew not to eat where she slept.
Suddenly, my ears caught a jingling sound. Keys in a lock.
"Crap," I said. Max was home early. "Uh, Cal?" Lace's voice called softly, her vocal cords tight.
"Shh!" I flicked off the wand, shoved it into my pocket, and ran into the living room. Lace was standing there, clutching her wet blender.
"Put that down!" I hissed, dragging her toward the glass doors that led to the balcony.
I heard the lock's bolt shoot closed. A lucky break - I had left the apartment unlocked behind us, so whoever was coming in had just relocked the door, thinking they were unlocking it.
Muffled Spanish swearing filtered through, a female voice, and I realized that Max's apartment was spotless because he had a cleaner.
I yanked the sliding glass door open and pushed Lace out into the cold. When it was shut behind us, I watched the thick curtains swing lazily to a halt, hiding us from the living room. Pressing one ear to the icy glass, palming the other to mute the roar of traffic, I listened. My heartbeat was ramped up with excitement, adrenaline making the parasite start to churn, my muscles tightening. Through the glass came the sound of a graphite-lubricated dead-bolt shooting free, and the door creaked open.
"Mio!" an annoyed voice muttered. Fingers fumbling for a light switch. The apartment was too dark to work in - she would probably be opening the curtains in a few moments.
I turned to Lace, whose eyes were wide, her pupils huge from the excitement. On the tiny balcony, we were only a foot apart, and I could smell her perfectly - the jasmine hair, a salt smell of nerves. We were too close for comfort. I pulled my eyes away from her and pointed at the next balcony over. "Who lives there?"
"Um, this girl called Freddie," Lace whispered.
"She at home?"
Lace shrugged.
"Well, let's hope not." I jumped up onto the rail and across.
"Jesus, dude!" Lace squeaked.
I turned back to look down through the two-and-a-half-foot gap, realizing I should at least pretend to show fear, if only for Lace's sake. The parasite doesn't want its peeps too cautious; it wants us picking fights, complete with the biting and the scratching and other disease-spreading activities. We carriers don't mind a little danger.
Lace, though, was fully human, and her eyes widened farther as she stared down.
"Come on," I whispered soothingly. "It's just a couple of feet."
She glared at me. "A couple of feet across. Seven stories down!"
I sighed and jumped back up, steadied myself with one loot on each rail, and leaned back against the building. "Okay, I'll swing you across. I promise I won't drop you."
"No way, dude!" she said, her panic breaking through the whisper.
I wondered if the cleaner had heard us and was already calling the cops. My Health and Mental badge looked real, and if a policeman called the phone number on the ID, there would be a Night Watch employee sitting at the other end. But Lace had been right about the whole illegal entry thing, and if someone went looking to complain to my boss in person, they would find only a bricked-up doorway in a forgotten basement of City Hall. The Night Watch had cut most of its official ties two hundred years ago; only a few bureaucrats remained who knew the secret histories.
I leaned down and grabbed Lace's wrist. "Sorry, but..."
"What are you - ?" She squealed as I lifted her up and over, setting her down on the next balcony.
When I jumped down beside her, Lace's face was white.
"You ... I could have..." she sputtered. Her mouth was open, and she was breathing hard. On the tiny balcony, my senses started to tangle up with one another, smell and sight and taste, the parasite pushing its advantage. Excitement radiated from Lace; I knew it was only fear making her pupils expand, her heart pound, but my body responded in its own blind way, construing it all as signs of arousal. My hands were itching to take hold of her shoulders and taste her lips.
"Excuse me," I squeaked, pushing her away from the balcony door.
I knelt and pulled out lock-picking equipment, desperate to get off that balcony and inside, anything to be a few feet farther away from Lace. My fingers fumbled, and I banged my head against the glass on purpose, clearing my brain long enough to squirt the keyhole with graphite.
Seconds later, the door slid open.
I stumbled inside Freddie's apartment, away from Lace's smell, sucking in the odors of industrial carpet, recently assembled Ikea furniture, and a musty couch. Anything but jasmine.
When I managed to get back under control, I put my ear to the wall. The welcome roar of a vacuum cleaner rumbled back and forth next door. Taking another deep breath, I collapsed onto the couch. I hadn't kissed Lace and the cops weren't on their way - two near disasters averted.
Without catching Lace's eye, I looked around. Another clone of Morgan's apartment, the walls innocently white. "Might as well check in here too."
Lace didn't say a word, staring at me from where she stood just inside the balcony door. Her expression was still intense, and when I switched on the UV light, the whites of her eyes glowed fiercely. She was rubbing her wrist where I'd grabbed it to lift her across.
She said calmly "How did you do that?"
"Do what?"
"Pick me up. Swing me like a cat."
I attempted a cavalier smile. "Is that how cats are swung?"
She snarled, revealing a flash of ultraviolet teeth. "Tell me."
I realized she was still angry and tried to channel Dr. Rat's lecture voice. "Well, the human body is capable of great strength, you know. Mothers whose babies are in danger have been known to lift cars. And people high on PCP can snap steel handcuffs or even pull their own teeth out with pliers."
This was a point often made in Hunting 101: Peeps aren't stronger than normal people in any healthy sense - the parasite just turns them into psychos, setting their muscles at emergency strength, like a car with its gas pedal stuck down. (Which would sort of make carrier peeps controlled psychos, I suppose, though nobody at the Night Watch ever put it like that.)
"So which category do you fall into?" Lace said. "Concerned mother or insane drug addict?"
"Um ... more like concerned mother, I guess?"
Lace advanced on me, stuck one stiff forefinger into the center of my chest, her smell overwhelming me as she shouted, "Well, let's get something straight, Cal. I am not... your... baby!"
She spun on her heel and stomped to the apartment door, unlocking it and yanking it open. She turned back, pulling something from her pocket. For a second, I thought she was going to throw it at me in a wild rage.
But her voice was even. "I found this in Max's kitchen trash. Guess Morgan never bothered to get her mail forwarded."
She flicked it at me after all, the envelope spinning like a ninja's star.
I plucked it from the air and turned it over. It was addressed to Morgan. Just a random piece of junk mail, but now I had a last name.
"Morgan Ryder. Hey, thanks for - "
The door slammed shut. Lace was gone.
I stared after her for a while, the echo of her exit ringing in my exquisite hearing. I could still smell the jasmine fragrance in the air, the scent of her anger, and traces of her skin oil and sweat on my fingers. Her departure had been so sudden, it took a moment to accept it.
It was better this way, of course. I'd been lucky so far. Those moments on the balcony had been too intense and unexpected. It was one thing sitting across a table from Lace in a crowded restaurant, but I couldn't be alone with her, not in small spaces. I liked her too much, and after six months of celibacy, the parasite was stronger than I was.
And once she thought about my cover story a little more, she'd probably figure I was some kind of thief or con man or just plain freaky. So maybe she'd steer clear of me from now on.
I let out a long, sad sigh, then continued sweeping for bodily fluids.